Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Alaska Biologist Exposes Palin's Environmental Record: Guest Post


(Marilyn Sigman is a 31-year resident of Alaska who has worked as a state and federal wildlife and habitat biologist and who currently directs a non-profit organization. She has been through a series of Alaskan "wolf wars" and has worked as a permitter for large development projects, including the last gas pipeline project proposed to bring Alaska's North Slope gas to market, begun in the late 1970's and never constructed.)

* * *

Sarah Palin has done a good job in looking out for Alaska 's "state's interest" when it comes to taxing production of state-owned oil and gas.

But what is the state's interest (which would become the national interest if Palin is elected Vice-president) in terms of protection of Alaska 's environment and ecosystems, according to Palin?

Her record is one of support for wolf control by illegal means, opposition to the listing of endangered species, and unethical intervention into public initiative processes.

She favors development in rich, sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Cook Inlet, and Bristol Bay and downplays risks from toxic spills, pollution, and loss of habitat.

Sarah Palin and Wolf Control

The citizens of Alaska have banned aerial hunting of wolves twice by initiative but legislative actions have provided the means for the state to pursue predator control.

Palin followed in the footsteps of Governor Frank Murkowski by appointing people to the Board of Game who were strong advocates of predator control.

She herself is a member and former President of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the leading hunter advocacy organization in Alaska which has consistently championed "intensive management" and predator control primarily to benefit urban "fly in" hunters.

During her two years as Governor, state efforts to kill wolves have intensified, employing methods such as helicopters, bounties, and killing pups in the den which are either outright illegal or unacceptable to the majority of Alaskans.

Beginning in 2003, 600 wolves had been killed by private pilots and trappers by March, 2007. But then, it became clear the winter's quota was far behind.

Only 98 of the desired 382 to 664 dead wolves had been killed, admittedly because it was harder to find wolves in areas where many had already been killed.

With Governor Palin's support, the Commissioner of Fish and Game instituted new measures. Among the most controversial was the offer of cash payment to the volunteer pilot/gunner teams who had been doing the killing.

"To motivate permittees to redouble their efforts and to help offset the high cost of aviation fuel, ADF&G will offer cash payments to those who return biological specimens to the department. Permittees will be paid $150 when they bring in the left forelegs of wolves taken from any of several designated control areas."

Although the Director of Wildlife Conservation Matt Robus carefully explained in the department press release that the cash payments were additional incentives to aerial control permittees, and "are not bounties," when sued by an environmental organization, the Alaska courts found the payments to, indeed, be bounties which have been prohibited in Alaska for decades.

At the same time in March, 2007, the department proposed using state employees and helicopters to kill wolves but said that Governor Palin has asked the department to use these methods only as a "last resort."

In December, 2007, the department was evidently already down to its last resort by mid-winter.

They planned a helicopter hunt by department biologists to take place in June when caribou would be on their calving grounds which was approved by the Board of Game in March. By June of 2008, 800 wolves had been killed.

Later, it came out that the actions taken in June, 2008, included killing fourteen wolf pups at two dens.

One of the state's top wildlife officials acted surprised to find the pups during what would have been their usual denning period:

"As we got on the calving grounds, we took adults and in the course of taking adults we found there were pups," said Doug Larsen, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation.

He went on to say that zoos and wildlife centers had been contacted, but the two most likely institutions in Alaska denied any contacts.

"The issue then was do we leave the pups to fend for themselves and starve or do we dispatch them," Larsen said. "Our feeling was that it was most humane to dispatch them."

The pups were "dispatched" by being shot in the head.

When an independent biologist went public with the pup killings and a furor arose over a practice which has banned for decades in Alaska , Denby Lloyd, commissioner of Fish and Game, evinced more surprise.

"(Some people) have wondered if the department was trying to cover up the killing of pups, because it was not highlighted in press announcements of the program. Rather, we were so intent upon making the public aware of our use of helicopter support, we didn't even think to identify the age, or sex, or characteristics other than the total number of wolves eliminated. It wasn't until weeks afterward that members of the public thought to ask."

In 2007, 172 scientists signed a letter to Palin, expressing concern about the lack of science behind the state's wolf-killing operation. According to the scientists, state officials set population objectives for moose and caribou based on "unattainable, unsustainable historically high populations."

As a result, the "inadequately designed predator control programs" threatened the long-term health of both the ungulate and wolf populations.

The scientists concluded with a plea to Palin to consider the conservation of wolves and bears "on an equal basis with the goal of producing more ungulates for hunters."

In 2008, year Palin introduced state legislation that would further divorce the predator-control program from science.

The legislation would transfer authority over the program from the state Department of Fish and Game to Alaska 's Board of Game, whose members are appointed by, well, Palin. The bill stalled in the Senate.

An initiative was placed on the ballot by petition in August, 2008, to put some reasonable controls on the predator program – to restrict the killing to state biologists and to require that it occur only if a biological emergency had been declared.

The state spent $400,000 on an "education program" that mailed out and stuffed newspapers throughout the state with a glossy brochure of one-sided details about wolf control right before the election.

It is against the law to spend state money to influence the outcome of an election. The ballot initiative was defeated.

Sarah Palin and Clean Water for Salmon

In August, 2008, a second initiative which would have toughened Alaska 's clean water regulations to protect salmon at risk from new large-scale mines was also defeated.

At stake is one of the most productive Bristol Bay salmon systems in the world threatened by Pebble Mine, targeting a world-class heavy metal deposit.

Sarah Palin came out publicly against the "clean water initiative," saying she was "taking off her governor hat" and taking what she called her "personal privilege" to say she would vote no on the initiative because she thought Alaska 's laws were protective enough.

The opposition to the initiative, well-funded by mining interests, took out a series of full-page ads in the Anchorage Daily News featuring Governor Palin's comments, including two ads the day before the election. It is against the law in Alaska for the governor to officially advocate for or against a ballot measure.

The proposed Pebble Mine is in one of the most seismically active areas in the world and would involve a massive dam at the headwaters of the watershed to hold back the toxic waste that will be generated.

Sarah Palin and Endangered Species

Palin has opposed efforts to list Cook Inlet beluga whales, a genetically distinct population of whales located only in this Alaskan inlet. Scientists estimate that they numbered 1,300 in the '80s; now they're down to just 375.

Palin has declared the listing and designation of critical habitat unnecessary, citing threats to the oil and gas industry. Palin supports a bridge across Cook Inlet and is continuing to spend federal money on it.

This is the second "bridge to nowhere" (to an area without roads or towns) which would require engineering a structure that can withstand an earthquake and some of the most extreme tides in the world, at a cost currently estimated at $1 billion.

Palin is suing the federal government over the listing of polar bears because it will cripple oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat off the state's northern and northwestern coasts.

The state is arguing that there is not enough evidence to support a listing and that the loss of habitat through melting of sea ice is not a valid reason for concern.

The arctic ice cap was 27% below its historic size in the summer of 2007 and reached its second historic low in 2008. An email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that three state biologists had read and concurred with the federal scientific reports that supported the federal listing.

Ken Taylor, a state wildlife official appointed by Palin, downplayed the importance of the disagreement. (More recently, Taylor retired and became the chief environmental officer for the mining company planning the Pebble Mine project.)

The legislature voted to spend $2 million on a conference focused on polar bear science, a measure that survived Palin's many vetoes which were primarily aimed at education and recreation projects. The President of the Alaska Senate was clear about the purpose of the conference. The point, said Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska 's interests.

"You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers," Harris told Alaska Daily News reporters.


Anonymous said...

You lefties sure spend a lot of time devoted to Sarah Palin

James Rowen said...

She's a vice-presidential nominee, potentially vice-president and thus president, but is a newcomer to the national stage and needs explaining.

I agree that there has been silly, People-magazine type coverage, but the biologist who wrote this essay is talking and policy andissues.

James Rowen said...

corrected last sentence:

"talking about policy and issues."

Anonymous said...

I would love to know why the MSM is spending all of this time on Sarah Palin, but we so NO hard news reporting about Obama?

James Rowen said...

to Anonymous: Don't go getting all conspiratorial on us. You are forgetting that there was huge reporting on Obama as the campaign unfolded, and especially after he began winning caucuses and primaries.

Palin is news because she is new.